Karen Menzies was the first Indigenous woman ever to be selected to play for the Matildas

by Georgie Abay
Monday 16 October 2023

Back in 1983, on her 21st birthday, Karen Menzies was selected to play for the women’s national soccer team, the Matildas. She was the first Indigenous woman ever to be chosen - and at cap no. 30, was one of the first Matildas. “It was the thing that I loved more than life itself,” reflects Karen.  

Karen loved football ever since she was a little girl – only back then, soccer was very much seen as a sport for boys, not girls. While at home with her Anglo Scottish family in Sydney, she was free to play whichever games she wished, at school, she was caned by her teachers for playing football in the schoolyard.  

“My love of football was viewed by the teachers as some kind of crime. Sports had been assigned genders. If you were interested in playing a sport that didn't have your gender attached, you were seen as abnormal and treated very badly,” she says. Karen was heavily disciplined for playing football. “I got mixed messages, because at home, I was allowed to play soccer with other kids in my backyard, but at school, it was not accepted. I was always getting into trouble. I think the teachers viewed me as being quite oppositional and defiant. It really snowballed and impacted on my education, because they tended to target me in a negative way. They saw me as a child who wasn't obeying the instructions that they were giving me. I was seen as being naughty, when really, I just loved running around after a round ball.” 

At the time, Karen was immersed in a distinctly heteronormative society. “For some of the teachers, there was probably an anxiety around my sexuality. And wondering if I was going to be gay. I don't know how you can make that call about an eight-year-old, but while my friends were boys, and I liked playing all of their games, I always wanted to be a girl. Playing football was even one of the catalysts for sending me to see a psychologist. I didn't have my first same sex relationship until I was 21,” she says. Because Karen didn’t fit the mould and belief that football was simply not something girls could or should play, she was often punished and removed from the classroom, which meant she missed out on learning. “I spent a lot of time standing outside the classroom in the garbage bin, or picking up papers as punishment for playing football,” she recalls.  

When she was 13 years old, everything changed. Karen was suddenly separated from the family who had cared for her since she was forcibly removed from her biological mother at eight-months-old. “I was not legally in the care of my family who raised me, my Anglo Scottish family. My status was still government owned. The government made all the decisions about what happened to me,” she reflects. “At the age of 13, they ended up coming to my school and took me away from the only family that I knew. I wasn't even permitted to take any of my favourite things. I was in my school uniform and taken straight from the high school and relocated first to Glebe, and then to Newcastle. I wasn’t even given the opportunity to say goodbye to my family. It was absolutely brutal.” Karen would live in institutions for the next five and a half years of her life.

When she arrived in Newcastle, six weeks after she was removed from her Anglo family, she was informed there were a variety of sports she could play. One of them happened to be football. “A couple of hours later, I was at the local footy field training, in a girls' team, for a competition. I felt like I was in paradise. I don't mean to minimise or dismiss what the care experience is like for many people in the past and present, but for me, it was an opportunity to be able to explore my life passion,” she recalls. Finally, she had the opportunity to play a girls' competition. “There was still that societal perception that girls playing this game was a bit weird. Because, really, that's for blokes, that's for boys. As I travelled through my adolescence, and even into my twenties, there was a lot of sexism and misogyny. In my twenties, there was a lot of homophobia as well. So, although I didn't get caned anymore, the verbal abuse that was pretty profound,” she says.  

As she became immersed in the world of football, something else in her life would shift. Her identity, her beginnings, her birth family, had all been things she’d wondered about for years. She’d asked questions but had never been given any answers. “From a very young age, I regularly questioned myself about where I came from. I had been told virtually nothing as a child. Later, at a case conference, they produced a photograph of my mum and my four siblings.” There was something she immediately noticed about the photograph – her family was a different colour to her. “I didn't quite understand what was going on. I thought they'd made a mistake. There was a couple of other girls at the institution who were visibly representative of what I understood Aboriginal people look like, so I thought it was an error. I thought it was the family members of the two girls that I lived with. I just remember blanking out – I now know I was experiencing dissociation,” she says.   Karen travelled to Queensland to spend the weekend with her biological mother and four siblings. “It didn't go so well. There was very poor preparation to assist me on that cultural journey, and there was inadequate support given to them.” She reflects that she was “an angry, adolescent living in an institution.” And while she was now representing the state in women’s football, she was still living in an institution. “It was all very clinical and regimented. It didn't have the softness or the warmth that you experience in a family home.” 

Discovering she was part of the Stolen Generations, and then meeting her biological family for the first time isn’t something Karen can put into words. “Some people say the word shock, but I have no words to describe the monumental shock that it was. There are no words. To say shock is such a gross understatement of what the feeling was like for me,” she recalls. “My mum continued to have contact with me through letters and phone calls, which led the authorities to make inaccurate assumptions. They started to ask me if I wanted to live in Queensland. At that stage, I'd had a boyfriend from when I was 14 to 18. He was a wonderful support. He's still one of my best friends, and will be until the day I die. He was a very significant part of my life. Plus, I loved all of my soccer activities, my friends from school. So even though I was still in an institution, I didn’t want to go to Queensland,” she says.  

To put the authorities off, she cut off contact from her birth family. “I was acutely aware that they’d had control over my entire life. They told me they could arrange for me to go and live in Queensland, and I didn’t want that to happen, so I just severed contact with my mum because I was absolutely and utterly terrified that I was going to be sent to Queensland,” she says. Karen didn't get to resume contact until she was in her twenties. “That space should not have happened, my mother and my siblings and myself, should not have ever been denied that time in our lives. But, as I say, the welfare authority’s miserable management and mismanagement played a significant part there.” 

As she began to unravel her beginnings and develop her personal identity, sport continued to be a lifeline and a source of identify for Karen. “What football gave me, and indeed other sports, was a sporting identity. I was always referred to, throughout high school, as a sports girl. It gave me a sense of who I was, a strong sense of identity. I dedicated so much time to football and sport, and I really think it stopped me from going down another path,” she says. I “I would be a statistic if it wasn't for football.” 

When she talks about trauma, she immediately acknowledges her Anglo Scottish family in Sydney, where she felt safe. “I had really good foundation of parenting from my Anglo family. I was always safe in their hands. When people have had trauma, particularly interpersonal trauma, there's often a loss of trust and a loss of safety that they have in others around them. There was certainly trauma, but my trauma was systems trauma, in that, from the moment I was stolen from my birth mother, I was lied to all the time. I developed some robust and resilient skills and the ability to problem solve. My parents who raised me gave me good values and set me on a path to be a successful, contributing member of society.”

After Karen was selected to play for the Matildas, she stayed in the national team for six years and played seven times from 1983 –1989. Back then, the tournaments were much more infrequent. “There was no sponsorship, there was no money, there were no resources to even facilitate that process. They were tricky days,” she recalls. “I do love the idea that I've been one of those earlier people who had to do some of the hard yards in order to pave the way for the current players.”